Trial and Tribulation
It may not seem it, particularly to those who don’t keep one, but a beard is a really big deal. For the man sporting one it represents a fairly complex and often quite turbulent expression of self and identity. The beard grown of lethargy is a rare or even mythical beast; there are few among us who care so little about our outward appearance. We all judge each other based on the way we look. We might like to think we’re above it while in reality we’re programmed that way. It is an important prelude to interaction; your appearance can forecast your mood, your intentions and your needs. Half of a conversation can happen before the first word is spoken based on the innumerable cues we share with each other, some more intentional than others. A cue you wear on your face, therefore, is serious business.
There are formidable opponents to beardedness, not the least of which tends to be the family and friends of the gentleman in question. For reasons numerous and often individual, beards are not popular in western society. There are clues in all aspects of life: from Papal orders to Catholic Priests to fashion photography, that show a trend towards clean-shavenness in the last few hundred years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this distaste for face-fur is stronger in women. Women are mothers, sisters and wives, people in your life that are inclined to vocally air their objections. Not that the dudes in your family are necessarily any more accepting; my Dad always has some comment to make on those rare occasions that I see him (despite his having a moustache for most of my childhood).
These are the people whose opinions tend to influence you, and disparagement from close friends and family can be the hardest to take, and the most likely to disuade you from perseverance. Complete strangers, or fringe acquaintances whom are unlikely to vocalise their opinions can still make their distaste clear and this can be similarly erosive to your confidence.
It's also easy to overlook that, whatever a man's reason for wearing a beard, it is a choice that he can't conceal. There's no socially acceptable way to hide your face in every-day western life. Being made to feel that a part of yourself is somehow unfit to be out in public must be a cutting experience.
Luckily extreme reactions are few. It's usually a spouse or a parent that will voice a negative opinion and it will in most cases be counterbalanced by peers who most likely share some of your sense of style and identity. The very fact that support communities exist for gentlemen who are reluctant to make the leap highlights a degree of societal stigma.
Some gents can and some gents can't. You have what your parent(s) gave you (I don't believe it's entirely clear whether hair patterns are predominantly maternal or paternal) and for some men it's not enough to achieve the beard they would like. There's a geographical element too, as those of a caucasian lineage often have denser beards than guys with strong far-eastern or african parenthood.
There's also the fact that when a guy grows his first beard, he really has no idea himself how it is going to turn out. Uncertainty is rarely easy to deal with. There's also the inevitable scruffy-looking period, you won't have a clear view of what you have until it's grown, and that might take a month or more. Some men will find this more frustrating than others, and some men will find the inevitable flaws in their beards are far more visible in the tentative early stages of growing.
Trends have as much impact on beards as they do on hairstyles, though they may not be quite as fast-paced in recent times. Popular beard styles have certainly been very changable in fairly recent history. In the last few years alone fashion seems to swing from short fuzzy beards, to stubble and clean shaven. In a sense, even when a beard is fashionable, the time investment involved equates to a decision to remove yourself from that aspect of popular men's culture. You're going to need time, and you're going to have to stick to your guns, if you can't make your mind up, you'll find that regularly changing style is self-defeating. In recent years the beard has become something of a counter-cultural symbol, which may be helpful to some and a hindrance to others.
Certain subcultures have always embraced the beard, metal music for example has long had a strong association with bearded musicians, often somewhat more extremely styled than in wider culture.
A beard in the modern world is something of a personal statement. As a member of an easily specified minority, the bearded man will quickly become identified by it as a characteristic that very clearly marks him from a crowd. It becomes the feature that your friends and colleagues use to point you out, and the first thing they remark on when they see you if you change it. It can be surprising just how much it becomes a feature that defines you amongst the people that you interact with regularly.
It also becomes a big deal for you. You'll see it in the mirror every day, and once you achieve the size and style that you want and you're happy with it you'll find that it's hard to imagine living without it; much the same as the notion of shaving off your nose every morning.
The social perception of a bearded man is a complicated thing. Certainly in the west we make all manner of often contradictory associations between beards and the personalities of the men who own them. Bearded men might be described as kind or wise looking if they're sporting particularly bushy beards, where as the goatee or circle beard might be considered more edgy or dangerous looking since it rose to popularity during prohibition era America. A man who looks unshaven or stubbly might be described as untrustworthy or sexy... maybe both.
For the most part in my experience, a beard draws predominantly positive perceptions. I've worn a fair few styles over the last ten years or so, from the circle beard, friendly chops and 'tailback' to smarter, shorter full beards and my current (at time of writing) bushy monster. It's something often commented on, and most often that's an encouraging remark.
Much like the hair on your scalp, you can use the style of a beard to express something of your persona. Beards run the gamut of tidy to wild, tame to severe and can be tailored to suit the image you want to portray of yourself. The number of possibilities is limited only by reason and imagination, and you have the freedom to trial and sample until you find something that suits you.
It may seem like a faintly silly notion, but there's a sense of camaraderie amongst bearded guys. You get more nods in passing, and compliments from other bearded men, and a whole lot more encouragement. It's true though, in my experience that men who don't have nor particularly want a beard of their own will often be appreciative of the face fuzz you're sporting (within the confines of appropriate manly behaviour, of course).
I even get fairly regular comments on Twitter, and the occasional friendly jibe on Facebook, usually from people I barely know or don't know from Adam, who saw my avatar picture in a comment of a retweet and were compelled to say something. I have friends today that I would likely never have encountered if it weren't for my beard; a phenomenon that I find quite awesome and quite bemusing.
Beards are surrounded by myths, some more bizarre than others. Beards make you hot in the summer, or make you look like a creepy hobo, or they grow faster if you shave and innumerable other gems of popular wisdom. The majority of these are actually counterintuitive or plain silly, even just mean, on inspection. Women don't feel the need to go bald-headed every time the sun is shining, and your beard grows at the rate it grows and there's little you can do to influence it.
The only time I've ever encountered an insulting generalisation is from someone who feels the need to influence me in a decision to shave, and has no factual reasoning to back up their selfish opinion. You have to pay these people little mind.
If it's ever occurred to you to do so, out of desire or just curiosity, then you should. This is a part of yourself that you remove habitually, and to not experience it at least once in your life seems to me equivalent to just deciding tomorrow that you'll ignore your left foot for the rest of your life. It has the unusual and helpful characteristic that should you later, upon reflection, decide that it's not the look for you, then it's a reversible decision.
Give it some time; all but the shortest styles are going to need a month or more to look the way you want them to. Beards simply don't grow that fast (even for those of us who can shave in a morning and have stubble by lunchtime). If you're apprehensive about the reaction, make a start on that two week vacation, away from the commentary of your colleagues.
You may find that it was a great decision, and literally change your face forever.